MARVEL’S HEROES CAME FAST AND FURIOUS during the early 1960s. They were all exciting and new, but after a while, there seemed to be one recurring detail in their stories. The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Hulk, Ant-Man… they were all the products of science. Whether by accident or by design, their superpowers would not have existed without something scientific doing its thing.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But Stan Lee and Jack Kirby didn’t want to repeat themselves too often. They were also wondering why comics didn’t use more of humanity’s ancient myths as a source of the material. Certainly, the Olympian gods were an important part of Wonder Woman, but aside from that, there were few attempts by comic writers to integrate past myths into their stories.
Lee and Kirby changed that with Journey Into Mystery #83. With the legends of Norse mythology as their inspiration, they brought Thor, the Norse thunder god, from Asgard to New York City, developing a theme familiar to many religions, that of the god who comes to Earth in a mortal form in order to better understand humanity.
In the original story, an American doctor named Donald Blake was in Norway on vacation when he was trapped in a cave by a boulder. He found a wooden stick and tried to use it as a lever, but struck the rock in frustration when it wouldn’t move. In a blinding flash, he was transformed into Thor and his stick changed into a mighty hammer with these words inscribed on it: “Whosoever holds this hammer if he be worthy, shall possess the power of…Thor!” He then returned to New York to battle criminals and superhuman threats in his new identity.
But as things turned out, not everything was what it seemed. In fact, “Dr. Blake” never really existed. As readers later learned, Thor’s father, Odin, turned his immortal son into a mortal to teach him humility, and it was only when Thor proved himself worthy that Odin revealed this to him. Even after learning the truth, Thor elected to remain a guardian of humanity, enjoying a long-standing membership in the Avengers.
As the series continued, readers were introduced to more Norse gods and goddesses, and the writers did an exceptional job weaving the old tales and their new stories together. Asgard, the legendary home of the Norse gods, became a character in itself, populated with all manners of giants, elves, trolls, and demons. By the time Journey Into Mystery was renamed The Mighty Thor in 1966, Lee and Kirby had taken Thor from the streets of New York to the realm of Asgard to the ends of the universe and beyond. The Greco-Roman pantheon was brought to life when Thor met the demigod Hercules and fought side-by-side with him in Hades. Thor’s adventures spanned the cosmos and beyond, and introduced millions of readers to entire bodies of literature once read-only by college students — and they loved every bit of it.
Journey Into Mystery #83 may not have been the beginning of ancient mythologies in comic-book form, but it was certainly the most potent example of the endless possibilities that they promised. By mixing our ancestors’ stories with the most modern form of storytelling, Thor’s creators proved that there was plenty of life left in the old tales of heroism and villainy — which, come to think of it, weren’t that much different from the superhero tales of today.
From The 100 Greatest Comics of the 20th Century By Mitchell Brown
Did you know…
In Norse mythology, Thor’s hair color is red. Thor’s creators have never explained the reason for the change.
Unaware that Thor’s hammer was called Mjolnir in Norse mythology, Thor writer Larry Lieber called it the Uru hammer, a name he said he just made up.
Thor’s first real-life appearance was as a guest star in the 1988 TV movie The Incredible Hulk Returns, a film in which Dr. Blake and Thor were clearly two separate beings. A little girl’s obsession with Thor was a prominent plot point in the 1988 film Adventures in Babysitting.